Egypt: Poll fails to douse revolutionary flames

December 3, 2011
Tahrir Square protest, November 22.

Egyptians went to the polls on November 28 in the first round of parliamentary elections since dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February.

Large numbers of people turned out to vote despite calls from some revolutionary groups for a boycott of a process seen as a means to legitimise the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).

The elections were held amid ongoing protests against the military regime by thousands of pro-democracy activists in Tahrir Square in Cairo and elsewhere across the country.

On November 19, security forces attacked a small group of protesters in Tahrir Square. This sparked huge rallies calling for an end military rule.

About 40 people were killed and thousands injured by security forces in street battles that lasted for days, The Guardian said on November 30. Tear gas and other chemical weapons, supplied by the United States and Israel, were used against protesters.

Islamist parties were the main beneficiaries of the elections, especially the Freedom and Justice Party, the electoral front of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It won about 40% of seats, The Guardian said.

Islamist parties looked set to take 65% of seats in the first round of voting, Ahram Online said on November 30.

Despite the large numbers involved in the protests, progressive candidates representing revolutionary forces generally fared poorly.

Street protests against the military regime were given priority by the revolution's supporters, although the proposed boycott of the undemocratic election process was not widely observed.

Mohamed Ghazal, a member of the Egyptian Association for Change-Australia told Green Left Weekly: “There is a split among the protesters in Tahrir. Some of them are saying: 'No, we should boycott the election because it's a farce, because the parliament is not getting all the power it should have. SCAF is basically making it a powerless parliament.'

“But from the other part of the Tahrir Square, people did actually go and vote and then came back to Tahrir. They think: 'If the election is the thing that's going to rid us of the military rule, then so be it, we'll do that.'

“But at the end of the day, I don't think they're going to give up the square before they get what they want.”

Mostafa Ali, a member of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists told Socialist Worker on November 28 that many people would choose to vote “because they don’t want to leave the political scene to the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists [fundamentalist Sunnis]”.

SCAF is made up of military commanders who were part of the Mubarak regime. It has continued the agenda of repression, neoliberalism and subservience to imperialism that drove millions to demand Mubarak leave power.

Since taking over government, SCAF has tried to put the breaks on the powerful pro-democracy movement that challenges this agenda. It has repressed protests and tried to channel dissent onto the narrow path of elite politics.

Ghazal said: “SCAF will use this huge turnout and participation in the elections as proof of their legitimacy, when it is not proof of their legitimacy as much as it is proof that the people want to get rid of them as soon as possible.

“Compared to the previous elections in Egypt, [this was] unprecedented. People stood by the thousands in lines that went for hundreds of metres, sometimes almost three-quarters of a mile.

“This was not the case in Egypt before. People were not really interested in politics previously because they were pushed out of it.”

SCAF claims to be committed to a transition to civilian rule, but the framework for the new parliament leaves the country largely under military control.

Under the plan, the military and its budget are exempt from civilian scrutiny.

Hesham Sallam said at on November 28: “Parliament is scheduled to operate within a legal framework that is constructed and controlled by the same body that it is supposed to check and oversee: the SCAF.

“In other words, the assumption that this parliament will have the sufficient legal and constitutional resources to institute greater vertical accountability and to act as the SCAF’s partner in this transition … is deeply problematic.”

Sallam said: “The realm of orderly politics by itself can hardly pose a serious challenge to the military’s dominance of this transition and to the conspicuous persistence of unchecked power inside the state’s bureaucracies.”

Anger against the regime is still growing. Any pretense that SCAF is interested in safeguarding the revolution has vanished in their 10 months in power. It has ignored the political and economic concerns that motivated the overthrow of Mubarak in favour of shoring up its own power.

Under intense pressure, SCAF moved its deadline to hand over to a civilian government forward to June next year, said on November 23.

The big winners in the elections — the Muslim Brotherhood — have been criticised for opportunistically using their advantage of being an established political force to seek election ahead of newer political formations.

Its conservative approach alienated many in its youth wing, which split to form the Egyptian Current Party.

The Huffington Post reported allegations on November 23 that SCAF was providing resources and preferential treatment to the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to keep out secular and progressive candidates that might challenge the military's power and business operations.

Ghazal said the Brotherhood's motives were clear: “On the 25th of January [when the revolution began], the Muslim Brotherhood were not there ... And in Tahrir Square during the last, still ongoing, massacre, they were not there.

“So, at the end of the day, people look at them and say: 'So it's not really about Islam, it's not really about justice and it's not really about all the things you say you stand for. It's about the parliament seat — that's all you care about. 'You just want the power, and everything else you say is a lie.'

“That's how people saw it. Even people who are not really involved in politics are in the square getting beaten up, gassed and shot at, while MB are just worried about their seats in the parliament...

“[A]t the end of the day, I just see them as the other side of the coin from the National Democratic Party that Mubarak was part of ... I personally think that when they get the majority of the seats and even when they are in power, it's not going to last for long. Because now, the Egyptian people know the way to the election box, and they are just going to vote them out in the next term.

“They are going to fail dramatically because nothing's going to change with them in power.”

The protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt remain powerful enough to challenge whoever takes control of the government.

Ghazal said: “The people in Tahrir Square, they don't give up. They're still there. They're getting shot at, they're getting killed and they're getting gassed with American tear gas …

“I don't think they're going to give up. Eventually SCAF is going to go. Either, as they said, in June or before.”

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